Drinking to forget

David Bullard writes on Premier Alan Winde's plans to deter binge boozing


On my return visits to the family in the UK in the early 1980’s I had already accepted that the Rand was, on balance, more likely to depreciate than appreciate. When I arrived in SA the commercial rand rate was R1.80 to the £ and the financial rand was at R4.50 to the £. Since I was emigrating I was allowed to bring the bulk of my not so vast wealth in through the financial rand which allowed me to buy shares in the company employing me.

My negativity towards the currency of the country of my adoption wasn’t based on a short term, carpet-bagger view of South Africa (whatever the bouffant haired one may claim). It was purely based on the reality that sanctions were looming, that PW Botha probably wouldn’t cross the Rubicon (he didn’t) and that things were bound to get tougher for SA which at the time was emerging from a gold price boom that had convinced many people the good times would never end.

Since I had decided to make South Africa my home the strength or weakness of the currency was of no great consequence to me other than when I had a few pounds sterling left at the end of an overseas trip. Did I really want to bring it back though, convert it to rands and exchange it next year at a less attractive rate? As a financial market trader that would have been a really dumb decision. So what to do?

My father gave me a stern lecture on exchange controls and pointed out that I was not permitted to keep money offshore at the time. That could lead to all sorts of trouble with the South African Reserve Bank. In those days one was expected to exchange any foreign currency at your bank on your return.

My father had a solution. He pointed out to me that it was not a crime to order a bottle of wine while on an overseas trip and fail to drink it. Or indeed, 60 bottles of wine. And so it was that I became the part owner of a bonded stock of en primeur Ch Latour 1986, Ch Lafite 1986 and a decent supply of Churchill Port circa 1963.

The idea was that the wine would appreciate and pay for future visits but it never happened that way because the wine was consumed, mostly in the UK.

I paid the equivalent of R150 a bottle at the time for the Ch Latour so it seemed like meanness not to introduce my teenage UK nephew and niece in the UK to the rare pleasure of a first growth Bordeaux which they enjoyed with a pizza. I managed to bring a few bottles to SA in my hand luggage before the dire restrictions on carry on luggage following the 9/11 attacks in New York city.

One bottle (or was it two?) was consumed at The Grillhouse in Rosebank. A well known entrepreneur had sent me a box of Nat Sherman cigars which he had brought back from New York. They were delivered to the Sunday Times office in Biermann Avenue, Rosebank with a very kind letter saying how much he and his father enjoyed the ‘Out to Lunch’ column every week and to please consider this a token of their appreciation. I contacted the entrepreneur (who I had never met) to thank him and to suggest that I should buy him lunch at The Grillhouse. He accepted the invitation.

On The Grillhouse wine-list was Ch Latour 1986 listed at R5 900 a bottle. I had already arranged with Joel Katz, the legendary owner of The Grillhouse, that I would bring my own wine and not have to pay corkage. So, when introductions were over and we were seated I ordered the Ch Latour. I could see my guest checking the wine list and nervously registering that an impecunious columnist at the Sunday Times was ordering a R5 900 bottle of vino to go with the steak.

The wine arrived at the table already opened and carried by a trainee waiter. I took one look at the label and said “Dammit… no….I meant Ch Libertas…I knew it started with an ‘L’, You’d better bring me some sparkling mineral water. We’ll make spritzers”.

The blood drained visibly from my guest’s face and the poor trainee waiter nearly burst into tears. Joel let out a great guffaw of laughter and I confessed to my guest that it had all been a set up and we would indeed be enjoying a bottle of Ch Latour 1986, only not at R5 900 a bottle. I have every reason to believe that the signed label of that bottle is still proudly displayed in my former guest’s board room.

So, was it worth it? At R150 a bottle versus R5 900 a bottle most definitely. I’m guessing we drank it around 2000 while I was still persona grata at the Sunday Times and it was sublime. But how do you really put a value on a bottle of liquor?

Cape Premier Alan Winde has proposed introducing a ‘per unit of alcohol’ pricing in a major amendment to the Western Cape Liquor Act. I have nothing but admiration for Alan Winde and the way he has boldly and confidently handled the COVID crisis in the Western Cape. However, when politicians begin to tell me what I must drink, how much I must drink and what I must pay I have a problem.

The aim of this intrusive new proposal is to prevent binge drinking but it will do no such thing. If you’re a real binge drinker you will find a fix and the price you have to pay will be irrelevant. The legislation is more likely to push binge drinkers towards illegal and un-regulated alcohol supplies.

For those of us who don’t consider ourselves binge drinkers but need a regular dop to get us through the pain of a corrupt ANC government and COVID lockdown the per unit of alcohol proposal is hugely insulting.

One of my favourite every day whiskies is Harrier which offers exceptionally good value at around R144 a bottle. A bottle of premium wine would cost you at least twice that amount. One has an alcohol by volume of 43% and the other around 14%. So what will this meddling law do?

Presumably it would have to almost quadruple the price of the whisky to discourage me from finishing a bottle on my own. Obviously the same would apply to all spirits which would have to be unaffordably priced to deter all these Western Cape dronkies from their binge drinking habits.

Who decides what constitutes binge drinking? Hopefully not our elected politicians. And what the hell has it to with them anyway? If I get into a vehicle and drive drunk and am arrested at a road block then I deserve to be in trouble.

If I hammer a bottle of Scotch on my own at home because I’m depressed at how South Africa is sinking further into the mire what business is that of the Cape Provincial government? They’re not the ones who have to bring me black coffee and an ice pack in the morning.

If my excessive binge drinking is a hazard to my health surely that’s my own business. Do I really need a politician to tell me when enough is enough and put an absurdly high price on hard liquor? If that happens I may have to turn to recreational drugs which don’t appear to be regulated by the Western Cape Busybodies.

The good news is that other attempts by busybody politicians in other countries to regulate alcohol sales have been delayed by up to five years by court challenges. So stock up while you can. My own feelings on the matter are very simple. If Mr Winde can secure me some cases of Ch Latour at around R150 a bottle then I’m quite prepared to give up on the whisky.

However, my advice would be to jettison this attempt to control people’s freedom of choice and build more houses for those that desperately need them. That, after all, is what you were elected to do.